How to Achieve Better Health

woman-eating-strawberryI’ve always felt a need to figure out what it takes to achieve perfect health. When I first started getting serious with the whole health & fitness thing more than a decade ago, I designed my lifestyle according to what mainstream medicine, public dietary guidelines, and conventional wisdom told me was healthy. As for my diet, I ate a lot of whole grains, restricted my intake of red meat, eggs, and other foods high in saturated fat and/or cholesterol, drank a protein shake directly after every strength workout in an attempt to take advantage of the so-called “anabolic window”, consumed several small meals throughout the day, and always ate an early breakfast – regardless of whether I was actually hungry or not. In terms of exercise, I had been doing a lot of sports and endurance training for most of my life, but as I got older, my interest gradually started to shift more towards strength training. Just like so many else in the fitness community, I started out with the typical bodybuilding-type training split where each muscle group was trained to exhaustion once a week.

I experimented a lot with new training routines, supplements, and diets, but I always kept the key ingredients of the standard model; primarily because a lot of the conventional wisdom surrounding training and eating was, and still is, so ingrained in the public’s mind – and at the time, in my mind as well. I was definitely doing some unconventional and/or “extreme” things here and there, but overall, it’s safe to say that I was doing pretty much everything society told me was healthy; I was very physically active, ate a diet based on public dietary guidelines, and lead a lifestyle that most people would consider to be very healthy. The problem: The approach didn’t make me healthy at all. My body and health were a wreak – and conventional medicine didn’t seem to have any solutions.

Why am I telling you this? Primarily to show that I can relate to all of you out there who are struggling with chronic health issues, feel you are getting little help from mainstream medicine, and/or have experienced poor results from following conventional health & fitness advice.

A better way

It took years of trial and error, mediocre results, declining health, and intense research before I realised that instead of looking to mainstream medicine, the latest trends in the health & fitness community, and public dietary guidelines for advice, I should have turned my attention towards what evolution and good science could teach me about nutrition, exercise, and health. This new perspective on things opened me up to a whole new world, and I’ve now spent the better part of a decade immersed in everything related to nutrition, ancestral health, and evolutionary health promotion.

In retrospect, I clearly see that the approach to diet, training, and lifestyle I stuck with when I first started getting serious about health & fitness has no solid scientific support, but at the time, I believed I was doing the right things. After all, most of what I did was consistent with the mix of standard advice I got from dietary guidelines, public health authorities, dietitians, and health & fitness gurus.

When I look back on my early days of trial and error with diet, training, and health, I realise that I was grasping in the dark. I had never learned about ancestral health principles or the importance of applying an evolutionary perspective to health and nutrition, and consequently, I was destined to make a lot of mistakes.

As everyone who’s followed this blog knows, the approach to diet and exercise I stuck with in the beginning – which is the approach a lot of people out there choose – has little evolutionary support. Humans clearly aren’t well adapted to eat the type of diet I was taking in or follow the high-volume, high-intensity strength training program I did.

As I started to broaden my horizons many years ago, I gradually moved away from my old way of doing things. The grain-centered, low-fat diet was replaced by a Paleo-style diet, and the bodybuilding-type training split was abandoned in favor of a more balanced training program. Many other areas of my life also received a solid injection of evolutionary wisdom.

Getting back in touch with our evolutionary roots

My overarching health & nutrition philosophy, which was sculpted through many years of trial and error and  research into nutrition and health, has now stayed fairly unchanged for many years. That’s not to say that I never change my stance on certain topics, don’t have a lot left to learn, or have no nagging health issues left to resolve, it just means that the foundation that supports everything else has become firmly established. After all, it’s hard to argue with millions of years of evolution.

One of my main goals with this site is to get more people to recognize the importance of evolutionary biology and Darwinian medicine. Why? Because when you start to see things through the lens of evolution, you get a much better understanding of the world. Also, as I’ve tried to convey here on the blog, applying evolutionary theory to the understanding of health and medicine is crucial, as it gives us insights and tools we need to be able to take control of our own health.

It’s important to mention that natural selection selects for or against traits based on their effect on the fitness of the organism. It only “cares about” health as long as it impacts reproductive success. In other words, studying our evolutionary journey doesn’t immediately tell us how to achieve perfect health. However, as anyone who’s followed this blog or stayed up-to-date on the research on Paleo and ancestral health knows, looking at nutrition, exercise, etc. through the lens of evolution is important, as it gives us a good idea of what type of lifestyle and environment we’re well-adapted for; insight that lays the foundation for building a healthy and fit body. As I’ve repeatedly highlighted on this blog, Paleolithic humans were lean, fit, and largely free from the so-called diseases of civilization, a statement that is supported by several lines of evidence, including studies of hunter-gatherers and traditional people who live in environments that closely resemble those we evolved in as hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era (1, 2).

There has been inadequate time and selection pressure for natural selection to sculpt the human body into on that is well adapted to live in a modern, industrialized environment. To achieve a healthy and fit body, we have to align our diet and lifestyle with our primal genetic identity ( 13, 4). That doesn’t mean that we have to move into the wild or adopt a strict Paleo diet. It simply means that we should keep in mind that we are still – to a significant extent – stone agers from a genetic perspective (1, 5). This is clearly of importance when we make diet and lifestyle choices, as the “physical activity, sleep, sun exposure and dietary needs of every living organism (including humans) are genetically determined” (6).

The following 7 lifestyle factors have a particularly potent impact on human health and are therefore given the most attention on this blog.

Final words

All of this is not to say that adopting a Paleo-inspired lifestyle is enough to help everyone overcome their chronic health problems and achieve their health & fitness goals. It’s certainly a natural first step for everyone, and for those who are fairly healthy to begin with, it’s usually enough. However, for those who struggle with chronic health problems of some sort, a more personalized approach is sometimes needed. If your health condition is very poor, perhaps as a result of years of poor diet and lifestyle choices or certain underlying genetic/epigenetic factors, specific diet and lifestyle adjustments or treatment protocols may be needed to really see the improvements you are hoping for (I should now, as I’ve been dealing with my share of chronic health problems over the years). That’s why Darwinian-Medicine.com not only includes basic diet and exercise tips, but also information on how to repair a broken microbiome, optimize gene expression, sleep better, etc. It’s not always easy to find solutions to complex health problems, but with an evolutionary framework to help guide our decisions, everything becomes so much easier…

Now I want to hear from you: Have you taken steps to adjust your lifestyle so it more closely resembles that of our ancient forebears? What are the current health challenges you’re trying to overcome? Do you have any tips to share with me and other readers of this blog? Post your thoughts in the comment section below.

Picture: Creative Commons picture by .craig. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. Living a healthy life – meaning sleeping early, plenty of meat, eggs, fats, fruits and vegetables and not stressing about what I can’t control – really helped me to have great gains in hypertrophy and general health while keeping body fat around 7-10%. Not even a cold in at least years. I use grains strategically when bulking and have no problems with them, but I see they’re easy to overeat – exactly why I have them when bulking and keep them to a minimum otherwise.

    Following your advice, I’m adjusting my diet to include more fermented vegetables and yogurt in my diet. Thanks for that!

    • HI Carlos!

      Thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like you’ve landed on a plan that works great.

      Let me know how you do with the fermented foods (Make sure you’re buying some high-quality products – or make them yourself at home).

      • Always unpasteurized sauerkraut, organic shoyu and I make my own yogurt. Besides the health benefits, they taste great and are now an important part of my diet. Luckily I never lived an aseptic life, so the fermented foods are ‘supplemented’ by spending time with my 5 dogs and 2 cats in the backyard.

        • 5 dogs and 2 cats (!). Sounds like you have a great source of “probiotics” right there. That expensive lactobacillus supplement at the health food store doesn’t stand a chance.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Hi Eirik, I also fell into the trap from experts of what’s healthful and it cost me some chronic issues as well; I’ve had to search and search and do a lot of research to find my own answers. And tell my doctor *no I’m not taking that.*

    I struggle with osteoarthritis; mostly bothersome in my lower back due to a c-curve and also in my shoulders. I know I have it in my knees as well but it doesn’t feel bad. My soft tissue is tight and I get knots around my shoulder blade (common for a desk jockey), and I have digestion issues.

    So now for me it’s strictly whole foods, organic-as-possible, pastured/grass-fed animal products (chicken/beef/eggs/ghee/milk — not been good about adding liver more often), more raw veggies, leafy greens, fruits, than I used to eat as well as changing my exercise intensity (adding more Yoga-ish workouts) has helped keep my hormones in check which absolutely have a huge role in everything — weight gain/loss, mood, energy; just overall vibrancy. Even my allergies have have tapered down! I still struggle but am getting better and very importantly I remember to just be thankful for everything that I can do, forgive myself and my ignorance and just move forward! I never want to stray from my dietary habits (which is tough in this society).

    I take supplements daily; 1-2 cups bone broth, hyaluronic acid, vitD (which I didn’t realize before a couple months plays a huge role bodily functions), glucosamine, chondroitin/MSM.

    I canNOT believe what I used to eat and thought it was healthful. Just to name a couple things: Protein bars? Give me a break! a TON of cereal with skim factory-farmed milk. *shudder* Now I just want to shake people when I see what they eat “in the name of health” but I’d either get killed (if I can’t out-run them, which I probably could! LOL!) or arrested. And I think some people just need to be desperate for answers. Back in “those” days I’m not sure I would have listened if I thought what I was doing was right and working for me. After all, the experts are supposed to know what they’re talking about. Turns out they really didn’t. The low-fat thing left me hurtin’ for certain.

    I’m so thankful for your posts; I can share them and it’s not *me* preaching 🙂 I appreciate your resourcefulness and being a sounding board for like-minded people.

    Carlos, I LOVE organic shoyu! It’s expensive so I use sparingly, but it makes great fermented pickles 🙂

    • I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying here, Jennifer!

      I really like the diet you list. Sounds like it’s even more based around high-quality, whole foods than the diet you’ve described earlier.

      When I first started getting serious with health & fitness, I remember eating protein bars and cereal with pasteurized skim milk as well, thinking I was doing my body a great favor. Sadly, this is what people are led to believe is healthy food these days.

      Thanks for sharing the posts!

      • Jennifer says:

        Yep, anything with a label on it gets scrutinized to the fullest and even then I still prefer my own home cooked food. (except my Warrior Blend vegan proten powder for my breakfast smoothies)

        On weekends I make a big batch of food to last me through a week’s worth of lunches. Med/soft-boiled eggs, sprouted lentils/mung beans, a whole chicken (which also leaves enough for some dinners), and vegetable soup to last me through the week; it’s chock full of lightly cooked veggies. Celery, mushrooms, onions, garlic are a must no matter what variation of vegetables and soup I’m making (broth is great for the body, vegetable broth and chicken broth). Each lunch gets packaged ahead of time so every day before leaving for work all I need to do is add fresh greens to the container and head out the door. It saves a lot of time during the week and ensures I’ll have a healthful lunch to eat.

        I want to mention for the benefit of anyone in case it helps — beets really do work to restore gall bladder health. When I started having a hard time digesting (natural) peanut butter and getting heart burn I took a Nutritional Therapy class; that’s where I learned about the magic of beets. Now I regularly either ferment them or juice them — and I have no more issues! How incredible is that?

        Also, as much as I love ghee I have found that mashing half of an avocado (or a whole one) with steamed greens (eg, brussel sprouts, broccoli) instead of ghee is fantastic; I like the flavor and I also like knowing that I’m getting more nutrients with the avocado than with ghee for close to the same amount of fat/caloric content.

        Finally, I forgot to mention before that just taking a day off work to get some gardening or yardwork done, and/or just sitting on the patio listening to music or reading a book is fantastic. Giving myself a break from the stresses of work and commuting is a great mental health day and well worth taking.

    • Fermented pickles with shoyu, I’ll try that. Already went after some recipes. Thanks, Jennifer!

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